Bill Gates talks "free education"

No readers like this yet.
A bubbled in scan sheet

Like him or not, you've got to be impressed by the quality of discourse that Jon Stewart adds to the national dialogue.  Maybe this conversation with Bill Gates about the U.S. education system could have taken place on Charlie Rose -- but how many people would have seen it?

Take a few minutes to watch the video from Monday night's Daily Show. It's great stuff.  Jon Stewart asks the exact right question, and I'm paraphrasing: "if we don't have the freedom to fail occasionally in education, how will it ever get any better?"  And Bill gives the right answers, mostly.

One point here needs to be emphasized, though.  When Bill Gates talks about online education, he says this:

"Great courses online that you can use for free."

There is a huge and vitally important difference between those words, and these words:

"Great courses online that are free."

It's the difference between "free beer" and "free speech" -- which is a difference that we understand extremely well in our little corner of the world.

It's the difference between content that is locked up in the hands of organizations that can change the terms of usage at a whim, and content that is truly part of a commons.  It's the difference between content that is controlled by a select few, and content that anyone can influence, remix, translate, and spread around the world.

Teachers have been remixing content for years.  They photocopy stuff, they find supplemental materials anywhere they can put their hands on them, and they create great work for their classrooms, and they often do it with little regard to the niceties of copyright law.  How will teachers do that with online content?

Moving to an online model should allow for the possibility of sharing all of that great work, legally -- but not if we continue to adhere to the outdated philosophy that only Large Content Publishers can offer content that's worthwhile.  Which, make no mistake, is precisely the implication behind Bill's carefully parsed praise of "great courses online that you can use for free".

"Freely available" is certainly an improvement over the status quo, but it's way, way different than "free".

User profile image.
Greg DeKoenigsberg is the Vice President of Community for Ansible, where he leads the company's relationship with the broader open source community. Greg brings to Ansible over a decade of open source product and community leadership, with the majority of this time spent building and leading communities for open source leader Red Hat.


Education, like software, is something that requires an investment of primarily time, or primarily money to acquire. The homeschool ideal champions the former, "private" schools ("public" schools in UK) offer the latter. Since the early 20th century, the US and other "industrialized" coutries have added "public" schools ("government" schools), where you pay for them whether you use them or not. Some analogies with free/libre, proprietary, and monopoly software should be obvious.

The problem with "free beer" is that it is addictive. "Users" forget how to do it themselves. While relatively harmless as a marketing tool for conveniences, it causes long term harm for foundational things like education and software.

The problem with "free beer" is that it is addictive. "Users" forget how to do it themselves. While relatively harmless as a marketing tool for conveniences, it causes long term harm for foundational things like education and software.

Thats totally wrong..
Its like saying that free speech is addictive because users forget how to do it themselves..

Free as in freedom!

"Free as in Freedom". You are so right! But I was talking about "free as in beer", which is completely different. Which was the main point of the original article! This is why the original article included the "Princess Bride" clip, "I don't think that word means what you think it means." Gates was using the word "free" in a sense that is very opposite of "free as in freedom" ("free as in beer", in fact). This is why the article title uses "scare quotes" around "free education". (My, this reply has quite the mixture of title quotes, scare quotes, and quote quotes.)

As Anonymous suggests one of the problems with Free Beer is:

<cite>is that it is addictive. "Users" forget how to do it themselves.</cite>

As the project leader of a computer refurbishing project that helps low income-earners get access to computers I see this from time to time. Someone brings us in a computer to have viruses removed, and since we charge next to nothing, inevitably what happens is that a few weeks later they reinfect their PCs with spyware and viruses. We try to minimize this by handing out information about spyware and viruses, but because we've made the cost of removing spyware and viruses so cheap people are less worried about being careful. One of the things charging a lot to remove viruses does is force some people to be a bit more careful about what they do in the future.

Of course this isn't the case for all people in all situations. Some, just by losing important data, will be more careful. But we typically see people that share files via P2P tend to have their computer reinfected pretty quick.

It's a catch-22, we want to help people who can't afford to plunk down $140+ at a big box store for virus/spyware removal, yet we don't want people to be so complacent that they devalue the amount of work it takes to remove some spyware and viruses.

Another reason we love to install Free as in speech operating systems...

Greg I believe there is an open courseware group, and I thought you might have had a hand in starting it? URL?

Side note: years ago I had the chance to see Bill Gates at a Comdex, but the room was so full that I took a look and turned around and couldn't be bothered. He's just a guy. He might have been the world's richest guy, but he's no more special than most of the people who walk through our doors. The only difference is he has more influence, and that can always change.

....don't worry, plenty of stories about opencourseware coming. :)

I do not remember his name but a few years ago I read a couple articles on how to get an education for free as long as you were not interested in just getting the provers, the sheepskin.

He pointed out the universities have their course offerings online along with the texts and readings. If your city has a university the texts can mostly be found in used book stores near it or try eBay or whatever. You can complete the degree materials on your own. Of course you don't get tests and feedback on papers but you can find papers online after you write yours and see if they measure up. In technical fields there are plenty of answer books for the "even numbered problems" to test yourself against.

While there is some rationale for having the last year of study on campus where the cheats can be weeded from the reals, if you just want the knowledge there is no need to pay an arm and a leg for it.

But there is a field which says your degree is great but you still have to pass a final, the law and you have to pass the bar exam. Granted that is only to practice in court but there is no reason this idea cannot be extended to any degree field.

Is this an unworkable idea? How many of us are actually doing anything we learned in college? I mean you learned several languages but which ones are you using now? How many are addressing problems that existed back in college? In fact in this field there are more who started programming as kids and never got the sheepskin than there have ever been child prodigies in music or any other field. Why should it be different for any other field?

@Matt Giwer

You're describing exactly how I learned, with the exception that I eventually got a degree anyway to make me look employable.

I was home schooled, sort of. We called it unschooling: My parents provided material and opportunity, I provided the teaching.

Education starts with a thirst for knowledge, a thing which I do not know how to teach. Once you have that materials and opportunity are required. Once you have those occasional feedback, such as approval, is useful. I found that being able to ask a real person any question at any time valuable, rather than being required to find the right book, but this was pre-Internet; today I would probably ask Google first and my parents second.

At a certain point in the education process it becomes highly valuable to have equipment of various sorts in addition to just having books. Some equipment is too expensive to own and this is where formal schools provide value: labs.

[There is a reason for this long preamble.]

My son is completely self-taught in programming. After correcting for inflation his first professional job didn't pay all that much more than my first professional job. ;) I went through four zero income years for less.;(

That said I made a career of developing military electronic systems (no education in either the military or electronics) involving computer hardware and software (no education in either) but self taught in all four fields plus project management methodology learned on the job. A BS in physics got me a job to do completely unrelated things. The sheepskin is what the employer looks for which is why you got one. But even then I had an unsolicited offer from ORNL after only two years of the BS work if I was willing to become a programmer.

Perhaps software is the only field where this self-learning is practical.

I prefer to look at it differently based upon that long digression. Programming is the only new discipline since the invention of science back in the Renaissance. All the old fields are stuck in the old mold of acolytes studying religion in colleges which was later extended to studies in other fields <em>in addition to</em> becoming a priest.

What we all do once in the real world is learn what we need to learn regardless of the academic degree. Even in the academic version of the real world, a PhD professor, they are so narrow in their specialization they do not use 90% of what they learned. They do the same thing the rest of us do.

We have a model and it works even for the college dropouts who lead the companies which lead the fastest growing and newest industry in the world. We are not hide-bound to medieval schooling methods and it works better than great. It is really the way most people learn the subjects that are how they earn a living. It is about time the rest of the world at least give it a try.

Wikipedia is a wonderful example of how over time contributions by volunteers can create a very good educational resource. It is not a "course" but theoretically could become such. I certainly use it as a reference all the time for chemical and biological information at work.

All "pedias" are designed for a target audience of new parents which are in fact their primary market. The target level for the information is High School senior -- that being the last pre-college year for you strange Brits.;)

That said these things depend upon their objective. The volunteer editors, the cabal, have an objective of paralleling not surpassing and not differing from traditional encyclopedias.

I learned this by making a few changes based upon citations which I provided as part of the changes. Even though true they were too radical and the false but commonly believed information was preferred. My bad, anecdotal, but a fact.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.